Book reviews

Fictional Translators

Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through LiteratureRosemary Arrojo. 2018.

Review written by Paschalis Nikolaou


Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through Literature (Paperback) book cover

The subtitle of Rosemary Arrojo’s new book is one of those that really hold significance: consistent attempts to rethink literary writing and acts of reading persist throughout much of this worthy entry in Routledge’s ambitious ‘New Perspectives in Translation and Interpreting Studies’ (Michael Cronin and Moira Inghilleri are the series editors). In fact, Fictional Translators may be considered a contribution to literary studies, first and foremost– many angles in the eight chapters that comprise Arrojo’s investigations of novelistic discourse and the short story, do bear out a long-held conviction that fictional representations of translation shine a real light to the nature of literary translation; often
externalizing some unseen, ethical conflicts in the lives of its practitioners. But discussing key texts such as Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’ and Borges’s ‘Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote’ (in fact a trio of stories by Borges is discussed, with ‘Funes, His Memory’ and ‘Death and the Compass’ complimenting the ideas found in Menard’s fantastical engagement with Cervantes), as well as lesser-known works like Kosztolányi’s Kornél Esti and Babel’s ‘Guy de Maupassant’ key us into a more energetic and suggestive way of engaging with the projects and intentions of literature. At the same time, there is a timeliness, if not an inevitability to Arrojo’s research, and to other, similarly-themed collection of articles, for instance, Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation Fiction (2014; edited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl). Arrojo herself relays to us why, early in her Introduction: ‘[…] with the growth of translation studies as an interdiscipline and the proliferation of translation characters in world literature intensifying at the turn of the millennium, the scholarly interest in representations of translators and translator-related issues in fiction began to produce an abundance of critical material elsewhere as well’ (p. 2).

As she also notes there, Elsa Vierra’s ‘fictional turn’ prepared us for this discussion, as well as number of key essays in a 2005 special issue of Linguistica Antverpiensia, guest-edited by Dirk Delabastita and Rainier Grutman. The same goes for translation traditions like Brazil’s movimento antropofágico and those naturally inviting theoretical bends, such as post-structuralism, that reach with ease and enthusiasm to literary examples and doubles as encountered in Borges or Saramago. And Arrojo is quick to point out that positions like hers, on the reading of fiction as a space for theorization, are compatible with Derrida’s ‘defense of literature as a privileged site for the kind of reflection generally associated with philosophy or theory’ (p. 4).

Book-length, extended investigations have manifested relatively recently, however, and notably often on the heel of work done in conferences (Transfiction was indeed one such case). Arrojo proceeds to systematize a use of these fictional narratives, observing that often their plots will more readily defend or side with points of view, and will ‘play out’ some of the most impacting consequences of translation; on this she’s supported by views such as that fiction ‘is distinguished from other forms of discourse in its propensity to “play” with the given ideologemes of its cultural context’ (Beebee 1994: 72; p. 4 of Arrojo’s Introduction). This programmatic constancy of reading as a form of theory continues throughout, as Arrojo moves from the emblematic rewriter of Borges’s seminal story to Rodolfo Walsh’s poignant ‘Footnote’ that again supports notions of a ‘translation of philosophy into fiction’, to discussions of Wilde and Poe’s work as revealing explorations of translation akin to portrait painting (the argument goes that portrait painting reflects that ‘long established hierarchy separating fetishized conceptions of the original as a fully present, reliable bearer of its author’s acknowledged meanings and intentions, from the allegedly inadequate representations in other languages or media’ (p. 7)). Chapter 5 also finds the author exploring, via Freud’s ‘Creative Writers and Daydreaming’ and Nietzsche’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’, similarities between Kafka’s ‘The Burrow’ and Kostolányi’s kleptomaniac Hungarian translator, Gallus, within the aforementioned Kornél Esti. These are characters and plot settings seen to resourcefully echo compulsions shared by authors and translators. In the second case, for instance: the Hungarian version is fluent, contains no mistranslations and yet at the same time, the jewels worn by a female character, alongside watches, silverware, even entire mansions existing in the original, are all gone in translation. What particularly appears to interest Arrojo here is an implicit criticism of essentialist conceptions of language and the subject: ‘From the perspective of those who share a general belief in the possibility of stable meanings safely stored in texts, such meanings are not only considered to be objectively traced to their authors’ conscious intentions, but also viewed as their property’ (p. 103). In this way, Kostolányi’s humorous narrative exposes prejudices and preconceptions as it proceeds to describe the theft of exactly those objects and textual traits that result in the translator asserting power, his daring ‘to transform what was viewed as a trashy piece of English fiction into an elegant Hungarian narrative’ (ibid.)

Preceding the satisfying last chapter on ‘translation as transference’ and Borges’s multilevel appropriations of Cervantes and Whitman, we find two chapters that attempt to update thought on the sexualization of translation, most prominently seen through various aphorisms and notions (‘les belles infidèles’ being the most obvious example), through discussions of Saramago’s The History of the Siege of Lisbon (1989; Eng. trans. 1997), Babel’s ‘Guy de Maupassant’, Scliar’s ‘Notas ao pé da página’ (1995) and Calvino’s If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler (1979; Eng. trans. 1981). Certain characters and roles ascribed to them also suggest oppositions between masculine and feminine qualities: in the Saramago novel for instance, an opposition is detected between the author and the proofreader, the first is associated with ‘the novel’s enthusiastic celebration of literary power as a direct, almost immediate manifestation of enhanced masculinity‘ whilst the proofreader protagonist represents a task that is stereotypically feminine or feminizing, and ‘entails the repression or the absence of creativity and a selfless dedication to someone else’s writings’ p. 108-109). Argumentation in these two chapters is a bit more tenuous; one suspects these works do certainly support an illustration of such dynamics in class, but it seems harder to arrive at analysis that is as convincing as it should be, within the intentions of the academic monograph.

Arrojo’s interest in these matters is clear however, and insistently pursued. She has had time to hone several of these arguments (some of these chapters were previously published as individual essays) and her joining of these multifarious stories, literary traditions and characters in the service of a didactics of literature, and of literary translation, achieves a recognition of realities and constants within – and hopefully also leads to furthering of – literary creativity. One of the key tasks here, that of undoing some basic clichés and prejudices, is easier; students and researchers of translation will perhaps have already shed some initial preconceptions on translating by the time they come to a book like Arrojo’s. The deployment of several post-structuralist tenets is at points unconvincing, or feels less than necessary, running often contrary to the psychological reality of translators and/as fictional characters. Yet despite these occasional difficulties or weaknesses, this book’s excitement in delving into some of the most literary of narratives, and the implications behind them, remains contagious.


Beebee, T. O. (1994) ‘The Fiction of Translation: Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Love in Two
Languages’, SubStance 23(1), issue 73: 63-78.

Paschalis Nikolaou

Fictional Translators: Rethinking Translation through LiteratureRosemary Arrojo. 2018. London and New York: Routledge [New Perspectives in Translation and Interpreting Studies], ISBN 978-1-138-82714-1, pp. 183


Imaginations of Translations

Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation FictionEdited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl.

Early on in this exciting collection of essays originating from the 1st International Conference on Fictional Translators in Literature and Film, held in September 2011 at the University of Vienna, one of the editors, Klaus Kaindl, registers why we now see so much evidence of the age-old relationship between translation and writing creatively: a ‘transposition from the textual to the social sphere turned translation into a key concept for describing social processes, particularly of today’s globalization’ (p. 2); before agreeing with Dirk Delabatista that we are now dealing with a ‘master metaphor’. This volume is a thorough investigation into the use of ‘translation-related phenomena’ in fiction, and at the same time draws on an impressive range of theoretical work in translation studies and beyond – including Susan Bassnett, Sherry Simon, Michael Cronin and not least previous publications, such as the 2005 special issue of Linguistica Antverpiensa on ‘Fictionalizing Translation and Multilingualism’. What becomes very clear, very soon, is that a lot has been written since Cervantes and Borges, and that through books written in just the past decade by authors like Leila Aboulela, Jacques Gélat, Jean Paul Fosset, Hans-Ulrich Möhring, Olivier Balazuc and Jean Kwok, a ‘translational identity’ is not merely poignantly understood, but intensified in reflection.

The volume itself playfully contributes to the contexts it engages, from the motto (All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental) to the four sections being called ‘episodes’ (‘Entering theoretical territories’, ‘Travelling through sociocultural space’, ‘Experiencing agency and action’, ‘Carrying function into effect’). Given the nature of the thing investigated, a dizzying choice of methodological approaches and perspectives naturally transcends the editors’ attempts at orienting the reader: in fact, Transfiction can be best savoured at the level of individual chapter titles: Brian James Baer considers ‘Interpreting Daniel Stein: Or what happens when fictional translators get translated’ (pp. 157-175); Marija Todorova looks into both novelistic and autobiographical accounts in ‘Interpreting conflict: Memories of an interpreter’ (pp. 221-231); Alice Cesarini observes a ‘Magical mediation: The role of translation and interpreting in the narrative world of Harry Potter’ (pp. 329-344).

And the other nineteen essays contribute to the extensive use of those ‘frames of reference’ (extratextual and intratextual levels, and no less than five different ‘narrative functional categories’) that Kaindl’s ‘Introduction’ anticipates. In her contribution to the first ‘episode’, Fotini Apostolou locates traces of the philosophical past and openings into literary creation in a short story (Todd Hasak-Lowy’s ‘The Task of This Translator’, 2005), which transplants Walter Benjamin’s well known essay of nearly the same title into present reality while questioning boundaries between genres, between originals and translations. In one of two essays discussing Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is Illuminated (2002), Sabine Strümper-Krobb examines the way different narrative strands are connected by a translator figure, Alex Perchov, one of the novel’s two protagonists. As a key element of the plot, translation encounters writing (and writer, since the fictional translator composes letters to a fictitious Jonathan Safran Foer) in a quest for ‘mediation, remembering, witnessing’ (see pp. 254-58). Michelle Woods’s essay considers the case of Willa Muir’s unpublished 1930s novel Mrs Muttoe and the Top Storey, in fact an ‘autobiographical fictionalization, or factionalization, of her experiences translating Feuchtwanger and Kafka’ (p. 289); and all the more important because it offers a ‘portrait of female identity, threatened by the bind of patriarchy, that is strengthened via the act of translation’ (ibid.). One of the most interesting pieces is arguably saved for last, with Monika Wozniak surveying images of translation and translators in science fiction novels and films. She emerges with substantial detail, both considering the limited space one is assigned in an edited volume and the enormity of material available to her, from H. G. Wells to Star Trek: The Next Generation.

Transfiction is edited with a passion and close understanding of the issues involved, as well as the possibilities beyond; it will not be the final word in a growing field of study, but we may already count it among the key publications on the manifold ways in which, as Patricia Godbout puts it somewhere in the second ‘episode’ of this volume, the reader’s attention now shifts ‘from the translator as character to translation itself as a fictional motif’ (p. 186). It is a fine recent addition to John Benjamins ever-reliable Translation Library (BTL), and one that should be consulted by Translation Studies scholars, by translators of literature and, not least, by creative writers: the book is a host of novel ideas (pun intended).

Paschalis Nikolaou

Transfiction: Research into the Realities of Translation Fiction. Edited by Klaus Kaindl and Karlheinz Spitzl. 2014, Amsterdam/Philadelphia: John Benjamins Publishing Company [Benjamins Translation Library 110], ISBN 978-90-272-5850-2, pp. 373.

To see a list of books where translators and translation are fictionalised click here.


Translation and Commentary: Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue: an Experimental Translation by Chantal Wright

In Portrait of a Tongue Yoko Tawada sets out to paint ‘a Portrait of a Lady’, not by drawing a face but by portraying her tongue/language(s). This is the sketch of a German woman— whom Tawada calls P., referring only to her initial. But P.’s German, after many years in the United States, has now conflated with English, and she speaks a language unique to her, her own tongue. Tawada’s self-reflexive narration tells the story of her relationship with P., a bilingual experience unavoidably mixing English and German.

The translation is no ordinary translation in many ways. First of all, Chantal Wright offers the reader a substantial introduction, including a critical commentary on Tawada’s ‘exophonic’ work and an explanation of her own translational approach, which makes the reader of this translation ‘less ignorant’ and prepare them to better appreciate all different aspects of the text and its translation.

However, the uncommon feature of this translation is explained by the subheading on the cover: ‘an experimental translation’. The degree of experimentation is immediately and visually evinced by the configuration of words on the pages once the reader arrives at the translation itself. What can temporarily displace a reader generally accustomed to the usual lineation of the wording in a book will reveal itself as a creative device to make the translator visible. Two columns run parallel for the duration of the translation: in the left-hand column we can read Yoko Tawada translated in English (a rendition conveying, as translator points out in her introduction, the ‘exophonic’ nature of the source text, that is the presence of many words, phrases and sentences in German), and in the right-hand column the voice of Chantal Wright can be heard entering in dialogue with the text she has translated, uncovering the very process of translation.

This structure is reminiscent of Kristeva’s work Stabat Mater, an experimental essay in which the essayist’s voice conflates with the personal voice of Kristeva’s as a woman and a mother. In any case, in Portrait of Tongue, the effect of the double-column pattern is to turn the reader also into a listener, who is then able to listen to the speaking tongues of both Yoko Tawada and Chantal Wright.

These voices are bilingual (actually multilingual if we consider also Tawada’s mother tongue Japanese and English in its American and British variations all embedded in deeper textual layers) with the German inhabiting the English in both columns. Also, these voices are actively engaging each other with the ludic aspect of language, especially its phonetic material, which incidentally create intriguing and unique associations of concepts across the two foreign tongues (as for instance the sound ‘p’ which puts side by side opposites concepts as ‘permanent’ and ‘provisional’, ‘poetic’ and ‘practical’ in both German and English p. 40). This ludic dimension is also what enlivens the relationship between the two meanings of the word ‘tongue’ in the title, whereby a particular language system shared by many speakers becomes like the physical organ of an individual – the unique portrait of each individual.

This bilingual experience ultimately suggests how the formation of an identity more than often takes place in the in-betweenness of tongues and among many voices. And going back the previous example of the words starting with ‘p’, at the beginning of the narration Tawada names her anonymous character, the initial ‘P.’, as Piroschka, associating her with the fictitious character from a German novel by Hugo Harting (p.39). Yet, a further association is created, at a phonetic level, with the woman named ‘P.’ which happens to be permanent’ and ‘provisional’, ‘poetic’ and ‘practical’ because her name starts with ‘p’.

But the reader is not left alone to make sense of Tawada’s telling, unfurling on the right-hand of the page, as, on the left-hand, we are accompanied by Wright’s creative-critical voice. This takes on different roles at different times: the translator reflecting on the translation process; the critic and commentator providing all useful information on the author or cross-references quoting other literary or translation theory sources (as Ingeborg Bachmann p.75 or Walter Benjamin p.138); the linguist glossing/explaining the German and English translations of words and phrases.

Another significant aspect of the double column structure, this time from the point of view of the reader’s freedom, is the choice of reading style, that is the reader can choose whether to read one column at the time or enjoying the smooth flow crossing from one to the other.

Finally, it is important to point out that, with this book, experimentation, generally circumscribed in academic circles, has entered the publishing world and that a ‘thick’, visible translation, as produced by Chantal Wright, can be envisaged as a new way to read translations.

Eugenia Loffredo

Yoko Tawada’s Portrait of a Tongue: an experimental translation by Chantal Wright. 2014, University of Ottawa Press, ISBN:978-0-7766-0803-7


Reflections and Refractions in Cavafy’s Panorama. 

12 Greek Poems after Cavafy. Translated by Paschalis Nikolaou and Richard Berengarten 

12 Greek Poems after Cavafy is a beautiful bilingual collection of poems published in the exciting and welcome chapbook series by Shearsman.  This anthology spans just over a century  (from 1916 to 2015), and brings together Greek language poems written in the manner of, or as homage to Cavafy. These are inspired by the Alexandrian poet’s particular style, which Paschalis Nikolaou, editor and co-translator, defines as “recognizable enough across cultural space”, therefore “entirely suited for adaptation or recycling at the hands of a wide range of international artists” (p.5). Indeed, reading through this brilliant collection,  ideas of adaptation, as well as those of rewriting and versioning, conflate and give us, its readers, different layers to ‘peel’ and poetic forms to engage with. The most distinctive trait about this poetry book, and what I have enjoyed the most, is the desirable conflation of many voices and personae. First, there’s the relationship of these poems to Cavafy’s particular poetic output, the temporal and geographical contexts of his production, the specific material and settings used in his own poems,  a relationship which creates both literary and stylistic reflections and refractions; second, the styles and voices of these Greek poets (including Malanos, Ritsos, Seferis, as well as contemporary poets such as Kapsalis and Kosmopoulos) merge with that of Cavafy by way of a dialogue with the poet and his own, distinct language; lastly, there is yet another relationship, that of these Greek poems to their English language translations by Nikolaou and Richard Berengarten, further voices conversing together and offering a multivocality of poetic languages and idiolects.

The intertextual and the metatextual surface in the rewriting of a Cavafy’s poem from another perspective, in a poem-dedication, in a poem-compilation collage-like of Cavafy’s lines, in the description of Cavafy’s own writing desk, the ‘imagining’ of a conversation, in the re-imagining of past events and myths, in poems which recall other poems. Of course, the breadth of old and new poetic voices anthologised here also point to the enduring, creative effect that Cavafy’s poetry has had on Greek (and international) literary production.

12 poems

Structurally, the chapbook offers a succinct and engaging introduction to the contexts of these poems (and of Cavafy’s style and voice), followed by the source language poems and their translations presented side by side, mirroring each other, but also part of the overarching narrative of the collection. Notes on the poems, poets and the translations, positioned discreetly at the end of the collection provides us with further information on these literary and personal dialogues and relationships.

A final thought. Except for ‘The Poet’s Space’, all of the English poems here are collaborative translations between Nikolaou and Berengarten. Collaboration in translation entails a meeting of subjectivities, skills, expertise, languages and cultures. Underpinning collaboration and surfacing within the translated texts is the democratic notion of a ‘shared’ translational process, where the different subjectivities enrich and complement each other. This collaborative work is, I believe, one of the best translation practices around, precisely because of the multiple perspectives and creativities  which  feed into the reading and subsequent rewriting of the poems. It is a practice to be fostered and encouraged, and I am delighted to see such tremendous poet-translators collaborate here.

Manuela Perteghella

12 Greek Poems after Cavafy. Edited by Paschalis Nikolaou. Translated by Paschalis Nikolaou & Richard Berengarten. 2015, Shearsman Chapbooks, ISBN 978-1-84861-449-9, pp.36.


Poisons & Paradises: Life and Death in the City. 

Paradises by Iosi Havilio

The much anticipated third novel by Argentinean author Iosi Havilio brings us back to the narrator who first inhabited the pages of his first cult novel Open Door (2011, also published by And Other Stories). Recently widowed and with a young son in tow, Simón, dispossessed and evicted, she heads for Buenos Aires to start or endure a new life, and, in the process, meets a variety of characters: the immigrant Iris, the cunning yet unlucky Canetti, the sick and obese Tosca, the old, annoying friend Eloìsa from Open Door, the menacing drug dealer Mercedes, each with their own peculiar, sad, and surreal stories, with their more or less dysfunctional lives, trying to survive under the lights and noise of the capital. And it’s the city, its body, its cartography, that takes centre stage through the eyes of the she-narrator, which offers us detailed descriptions of roads, buildings, the municipal zoo where a job is found for her, the neighbourhoods she passes, the secretive squat El Buti, which becomes her and Simón’s home. Death is also a recurring thought in the mind of the narrator, a presence or feeling which seems to accompany her, from her husband’s sudden death and wake, to Tosca’s tumour, to the poison which surrounds her daily in the reptile house at the zoo. And poison itself, as a metaphor for paralysis and apathy is an underlying theme: for example, the use of drugs, but also the poison beads of the paradise trees (which the title seems to refer to) lining the streets of the city. Translated by Beth Fowler, there’s the intriguing  idea of a female voice – first created by a male author – reappropriated in translation by another female voice. Buenos Aires emerges in the English translation, as big, intimidating, illuminated and dark at the same time. The translator beautifully recreates the incessant, particular first person narration, made up of feelings, intuitions, descriptions, thoughts and passivity, which at times acquires a monologue-like quality. The dialogues and interactions with the other characters are finely crafted without speech marks within the narrator’s own commentary as if inscribed in a continuous flow with her own thoughts. A powerful read of life and survival at the margins, circumscribed by an almost Joycean paralysis.

Manuela Perteghella

 Paradises by Iosi Havilio (2013), translated by Beth Fowler, Introduced by Alex Clark (London -New York: And Other Stories), pp. 334, ISBN 9781908276247, eBook ISBN 9781908276254


Conversing and Dancing with the Voices of Others: Juan Gelman’s Com/positions translated by Lisa Rose Bradford

 Com/positions is an enthralling and engaging collection of poetry written in the 1980s by contemporary Argentinean poet Juan Gelman and just translated into English by Lisa Rose Bradford. This project can be read as a book about ‘translation’ itself at various levels: as an act of border-crossing and nomadism, and as the most intimate conversation with other poetic voices. It is a re-writing, and re-imagining of poems, songs and psalms written by Jewish poets inhabiting X-XIII-century Spain. These poems are translated and versioned by Gelman, who, by adding to, and reshaping them, begins a process of cross-fertilization of voices, imagery, ideas and ages. The Com/positions also include Gelman’s own poems under a pseudonym, in an act of pseudotranslation, as if the poet’s own writing becomes shaped by the voices and cultures of the past, not purely as an exercise in imitation but rather as the formation of a renewed writing. The poets of the Spanish Andalucian School, the Sephardic poets and verses from ancient religious writing, as well as Gelman’s own poetics, all interrelate in the act of translation, in the act of writing again and again. In the exergue at the beginning of the collection, this notion is expounded by Gelman: ‘… i conversed with them. just as they with me from the dust of their bones and the splendor of their words. i don’t know which to celebrate more: the beauty of their lines or the vigor of their lips, but both become con/fused…’. The Hispanic vocabulary and lyricism of past centuries are interwoven with contemporary Argentinean rhythms, whose cross-fertilization continues into the lyric-enhancing English language translation by Bradford. She lovingly and expertly interacts with Gelman’s particular writing and recontextualization of past and present voices, allowing the rhythms and musicality of the com/positions to reverberate into a new language.  The English language texts become luminous and melodious, complimenting their Spanish source texts in this particular literary journey.  Indeed, the use of typographical slashes both in the source and target texts, besides pointing to the instability of language, reminds us of the composition of a musical score, of the riffs and modulations emerging from the themes of exile, love, death and life:

what is this body of mine / endless

burning / your breasts

cleave the night in two / leaving

flesh to lifedie in your grasp /

to eat the shadowbooks /

 (from ‘To Say’ by Yehuda Halevi)

Bradford terms all these poems ‘afterpoems’, writerly responses to others’ texts and narratives, which, by means of translation – first by Gelman and then by Bradford – are ‘positioned’ within a textual and poetic continuum. The book itself is also a visible translational project, with a comprehensive, reflective introduction by Bradford expounding on points such as Gelman’s com/positions, the challenges of translating such com/positions with their inherent and playful intertextuality, and her own creative translation practice. There are correspondences, metaphorical and literal, in this bilingual   edition, whereby the source text and the target text share the same time and space, inviting the reader to take part to this poetic continuum.

Manuela Perteghella

Gelman, Juan (2013) Com/positions, translation and commentary by Lisa Rose Bradford (San Francisco, CA: Coimbra Editions), pp.123, ISBN: 978-0-9826556-6-5

To read Bradford’s own reflection on translating Gelman, and to ‘taste’ one of these afterpoems click here or go to the Translation and other writings page.


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